‘That’s What Happens When You Send Up a Microbiologist’

Scientist-turned-astronaut Kate Rubins brings her lab experience to orbit.

Oh, and she also does spacewalks—Rubins preparing for her August 19 EVA. (NASA)
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Cleaning the space station is one of those thankless tasks that doesn’t usually appear in the astronaut’s job description. Handrails and other surfaces have to be wiped down regularly to keep nasty stuff from growing and germs from spreading, but janitorial duty is pretty much a waste of the uber-qualified crew’s time.  It may even be one of the first tasks delegated to an onboard robot.

That’s why Kate Rubins, a rookie astronaut who arrived on the station in early July, made ground controllers laugh a few days later when she radioed down this report about the Microgravity Science Glovebox, or MSG—a facility for containing potentially messy experiments:

A few days later, the industrious astronaut was at it again.

Lest you conclude that Dr. Rubins is some kind of clean freak, it likely has more to do with her professional background.  Before joining the astronaut corps in 2009, she ran her own lab at MIT’s Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, and is used to handling lethal viruses like smallpox and Ebola in ultra-sterile biocontainment facilities.

As I write this morning, Rubins is setting up a historic experiment onboard the station—the first attempt to sequence DNA in orbit. She’ll be testing the small, portable, commercial sequencing device called MinION just to make sure it works well in zero-G.

You can follow her progress by listening to the space station air-to-ground conversation, or watch this video interview with Aaron Burton, the principal investigator, for an explanation of what he hopes to accomplish. You can bet he’s happy to have such an experienced lab scientist running his experiment a couple hundred miles overhead.

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